Racism? We never talk about it: As German neo-Nazis admit to firebomb attacks in which three died, Linda Bellos sees only hypocrisy in Britain's attitude

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The Independent Online
As I live mainly in France these days, I am less interested than before in comparing and contrasting Britain with the rest of Europe. It none the less came as a shock to hear the BBC report the murder of three Turkish people in Molln as evidence of a cancer in the heart of Germany. The statistic used to justify this claim was the total of 14 people murdered in racist attacks since unification.

As on previous occasions, the killings also led to widespread media comment on the resurgence of xenophobia, not just in Germany, but in France, Italy and Spain. Only Britain was repeatedly absent from the list.

But if Germany can be described as having a 'cancer' on the basis of 14 racist murders in two years, what about Britain, where 11 people have died in racist attacks over the past 18 months - not to mention the desecration of Jewish cemeteries (which the Jewish Board of Deputies has consistently refused to acknowledge), to say nothing of the routine harassment of black families in their homes and on the streets?

It is the height of hypocrisy for the British press to condemn racism in Germany while ignoring similar racism at home. Germany has an impressive record in giving asylum. It has provided shelter for more than 200,000 Bosnian refugees, among others. Moreover, I, for one, could not imagine John Major leading a 300,000- strong demonstration against racism, as Helmut Kohl did

recently.

I was born in Britain in 1950 and have spent my life fighting racism and fascism, but my biggest battle has been to achieve any acknowledgement that the threat exists. The wave of British outrage prompted by racist attacks in mainland Europe only reinforces my view.

The racist hate mail I received from the day I entered public office in Britain is evidence to me of a deep-running current of racism, especially among older people and in areas of low black populations. Receiving such letters did not depress me, however - I interpreted it as a healthy sign that form was given to feelings.

There is a belief in some circles that all white Britons are inherently racist, and have simply learnt - depending on their level of education - that it is 'not nice' to say so. I do not share such pessimism. Racism does exist, it can grow, it can also be reduced, but I doubt that it can be eradicated completely.

In East Germany, Communism suppressed fascism and the existence of racism was not admitted, but now the lid has been lifted and xenophobic feelings and ideas have come out into the open.

Germany's record is far from perfect and it is easy to vilify the Germans. But this is a dangerous approach: it breeds complacency and ignores the truth that what happened between 1923 and 1945 in Germany could happen here. I cannot help recalling the economic circumstances of the rise of fascism: mass unemployment, weak political leadership and no viable democratic alternative to offer hope - conditions that now prevail in much of Europe, including Britain.

In circumstances such as these, charismatic leaders acquire a following. They offer strong leadership, appeal to nationalism and offer a scapegoat.

In the period between the Danish 'No' vote and the Commons debate in October, the British public was given very little information about the Maastricht treaty. While people in much of the rest of the EC received copies and commentaries on the treaty and were able to observe a well argued public debate, the British have largely been encouraged to remain ignorant of its strengths and weaknesses. Often any attempt at a debate was obscured by narrow appeals to nationalism and xenophobia.

The more negative things that are said about Germany and France, the more I worry that we are sweeping under the carpet what is really happening here. Many German Jews in the period up to 1938 chose to ignore the reality of fascism - and look where it got them. We can ensure that history does not repeat itself only by acknowledging past and present realities. We could make a start by reporting the racist attacks happening in Britain today.

The writer was leader of Lambeth Council from 1986 to 1988.

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